Saturday, November 30, 2013

1st Sunday of Advent, Year A (Gospel: Mt 24:37-44) Come Lord Jesus

I always think that it’s lovely that we celebrate Christmas in the middle of winter when the weather is often the most miserable (unless you are in Florida where I am at the moment!).  Outside it is usually dark, cold and wet.  Then we begin to light candles and put up coloured lights and decorations to remind us of the coming of our King.  It is a time of great hope and hopefully also a time that will bring joy.  ‘Advent’—which simply means ‘coming’—is meant to be a time of preparing for two things.  We are preparing for the coming of Jesus at Christmas, and we are also remembering that Christ will come again at the end of time.  Each Sunday in the Creed we say that, ‘He will come again to judge the living and the dead.’  We don’t know when that will be, but we believe that it will happen.  The Lord asks us to ‘stay awake’ and not to forget him, because none of us know when we will die, but the important thing is that we do not forget the Lord, who loves us and who created us. And so each Christmas we remember that Jesus came among us, for us, to help us, to teach us about God, about the world to come, and above all to die for us so that we can join in the happiness of God when we die ourselves.

The best way that we can prepare ourselves is in the heart, by trying to give time to God and being open to what He wants to say to us.  The Lord is constantly speaking to us but often we are not listening because we are too busy or distracted.  People sometimes ask me if God speaks to me. Yes God speaks to me all the time, but not through visions or voices. It's usually through other people or through the Scriptures. It has taken me quite a while to learn how to listen so that I might hear what God is saying to me. Advent is a good time to try and listen again and hear what the Lord has to say to us.  That is why the readings are about getting ready for the one who is coming, and not being so distracted by the world around us that we forget him.

One thing that is characteristic of the Gospels is that they are full of hope.  The message of God to us—the Good News—is always one of hope and it is certainly something we need in a world where we are constantly hearing of so many terrible things happening around us.  However, we don't hear of all the wonderful things that are constantly happening around us.  The many acts of kindness that people continually do for each other, looking out for each other especially when we are struggling.  This is the Spirit at work in us and this is what makes the world bearable, in spite of the awful things that happen.

So for the time of Advent let us ask the Lord to help us hear him again, by being quiet every so often, by stopping what we are doing for a moment and maybe just saying, ‘Come Lord Jesus.’

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Our Lord Jesus Christ, Universal King (Luke 23:35-43) Power in weakness

In the book of the Apocalypse (also known as Revelations) Saint John has a vision of a being that terrifies him.  He describes what he saw like this:
…I saw one like a Son of man… His head and his hair were white with the whiteness of wool, like snow, his eyes like a burning flame, his feet like burnished bronze… out of his mouth came a sharp sword, double edged, and his face was like the sun shining with all its force (Rev 1:13-16).

John writes that he was so afraid when he saw this being that he fell down as if dead.  But then the being in the vision touched him and said: ‘Do not be afraid; it is I, the First and the Last; I am the Living One, I was dead and look—I am alive for ever and ever and I hold the keys of death and the underworld’ (Rev 1:17-18). 
Who was this being?  It was of course Jesus, the one that John had lived with for three years.  Why would Jesus who was so close to John, appear to him in this frightening form?  Perhaps to remind John and us, who he really is.  Not just the Jesus whose name we carelessly throw around as a swear word, but Jesus who is Son of God, who will come to judge the living and the dead.  This is the one we believe in.  When we die we will all come before him face to face and all people of every religion will understand who He is and what He has done for us.
At the moment we are seeing huge changes in the world around us.  So much earthly power which seemed to be untouchable has collapsed over night.  Even the great structures of the Church seem to be shaking.  In many ways it is a very disturbing, even frightening time.  But I think that we need to remember who it is we believe in and who it is we put our trust in.  If we put our trust and hope in earthly power we will be disappointed as we know only too well, because people will let us down.  If we rely too much on the human side of our Church we will be disappointed, as we have been.  But the one we trust in and believe in is Jesus the Christ who is God.  All things are in his power and all things are completely subject to him.  Sometimes you get the impression especially from Hollywood, that the battle between good and evil, between God and Satan, is an equal one.  It is not.  There is no question of evil being equal to God.  All things are totally subject to God and I think we need to be reminded of that.
As a priest—especially at the moment—I need to keep reminding myself that Jesus is the one I worship as God and try to serve.  If I stay focused on the world around me I will find myself getting depressed or disillusioned.  Also if I spend too much time worrying about the state of the Church I also find it hard to keep going.  But the Lord keeps reminding me that He is the one I need to stay focused on, because He is the one in charge.  He is master of all things.  What we see happening in the Church at the moment is the work of his power purifying his Church, because He loves us and will not allow his people to continue with poison festering under the skin.  And so He allows his Church to be purified and renewed, which is what we see happening.  I have no doubt that what is happening in the world is also a kind of melt-down which God is allowing which will bring many people back to him.  There is nothing like a crisis to focus the mind!

People who have a certain amount of power like to show it off and make it felt.  People who are really powerful don’t seem to feel the need to show it off as much.  But God who is all-powerful, goes one step further and shows his power in weakness.  This is an extraordinary thing and something we find very difficult to get our heads around.

The greatest demonstration of God’s power was shown to us in the death of Jesus on the cross.  The Lord God did the exact opposite to what we would do and showed his power by not doing anything; by appearing to be a failure.  So the people laughed at him and mocked him, not realising that what they looked at was a demonstration of the greatest power of God.  This is why we use the symbol of the cross and why it is so powerful.  This is also why Satan hates the symbol of the cross, because it is a symbol of the extraordinary power of God and it is a reminder of the event that broke the power of sin and death. 

St. Paul in the first letter to the Corinthians says,
We are preaching Christ crucified; to the Jews an obstacle that they cannot get over, to the pagans madness, but to those who have been called, whether they are Jew or Greeks, a Christ who is the power and the wisdom of God (1Cor 1:22).

What the power of Jesus on the cross also shows us is that in the bleakest and darkest situations of pain and suffering, loneliness and abandonment, Christ is there with us, in his strength.  We are never alone no matter what we are going through.  God is with us.

Jesus Christ is our king, the most powerful king on earth. If we accept him as our king, we also share in his power, but it is not a power as we normally think of power and this is where many people find it hard to accept.  We want something that we can see and touch.  We want to know that we are important and that our King is the greatest of all.  But God in his wisdom knows that this isn’t the most important kind of power.

If Jesus is Lord and God as we say we believe He is, then we have nothing to be afraid of.
Every being in heaven, on earth and under the earth,
shall bend the knee at the name of Jesus;
and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:10-11).

Saturday, November 16, 2013

33rd Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 21: 5-19) Your endurance will win you your lives

Advent—which is the beginning of the Church’s year—starts in two weeks, and as we approach the end of the Church’s year, we are reminded of the end of time as well.  The readings for the next two weeks are all about the end of time and reminding us that all things the things around us will eventually come to an end. 

Every so often we hear people say that the end of time is coming, or that the Lord is about to come again, or that God is about to punish the earth for all the evil that is around.  Is this true?  We don’t know.  But what we do know is what the Lord himself said about this kind of thing.  We have it in the Gospel reading today.  He said: ‘Take care not to be deceived, because many will come using my name and saying, ‘I am He’, and, ‘The time is near at hand’.  Refuse to join them.’

The Lord simply asks us to persevere; to persevere with the daily struggle of trying to be a Christian, of trying to pray, to go to mass, to get on with whatever the Lord has given us to do, in married life, in single life, wherever we find ourselves.

If you were to ask what is the most important thing for a Christian to do to keep us going from day to day, I would say without a doubt it is prayer.  Prayer is simply our relationship with God and like any relationship with another person it takes many different forms.  It is as important as eating and sleeping. If you stop eating and sleeping you die physically.  If you don’t pray in some form, you die spiritually.  It is the exact same thing.  When we have some kind of relationship with God it puts things in perspective for us.  It helps us to see what is important and what isn’t.  It helps us to remember what our life is about and what we are called to do each day.  It also helps us not to become overwhelmed by all the gloom and doom around us.  If you know what the purpose of your life is, then it is a lot easier to keep going especially when we are hearing so much negativity around us.  Sure we are in difficult times, but if God is with us, guiding us, then what have we to be afraid of?

But how, you might ask, are we supposed to pray in this crazy and very busy world?  Well it’s like anything else, if we don’t make time for it, it won’t happen.  If we just try and fit it in when everything else is done, we won’t pray, don’t be fooled.  If we see it as a necessary thing, we will make time for it, just as we make time for eating and sleeping; but if we see it as an optional extra, then you will never pray.

Our prayer is the communication line between us and God.  It is simply how we express our relationship with him.  The more we are in tune with God through prayer, the more we will begin to think like God, the more we will begin to reflect the image of God that is in each of us, which is a very beautiful thing.  People who are close to God are beautiful, because they reflect this light of God which is in each of us.

How do I pray?  Think of all the time you spend in your car, or indeed any time you are alone.  We don’t always have to be listening to the radio.  We can choose to turn it off and simply talk to Jesus and tell him about our fears and hopes.  That is prayer.  Spend some time each day thanking God for all things, good and bad.  Tell God about your joys and ask him for your needs.  Spend time in silence before the Blessed Sacrament.  Read the Scriptures, the living Word of God.  Stay on for a few minutes after mass and thank God for coming to you in Holy Communion.  Ask God to bless your families and those people you are worried about.  Prayer doesn’t always change the situations that we are praying for, but it does change us.  So we grow and mature and we learn the ways of God.

There are almost as many ways to pray as there are people, and we will all live our relationship with God slightly differently, but what is important is that we do have this relationship with God in some form. 

Do you find that your faith seems empty and boring?  Do you wonder why you even bother with it half the time?  Ask yourself, are you praying, are you reading the Word of God?  And if not, are you surprised that your faith seems boring?

Jesus says to us, ‘Do not be deceived…’ the way to him is very ordinary and involves the same perseverance that anything else requires as well, just like any relationship with another person.  But the Lord also says, ‘Your endurance will win you your lives.’  The path to God isn’t easy, but it is well worth it.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

32nd Sunday Yr C (Luke 20:27-38) Ragheed Ganni and the promise of the world to come

A few years ago I got a phone call from a priest friend of mine in the Irish College in Rome where I had studied for three years.  He told me the sad news that a mutual priest friend of ours had been shot dead in Iraq after celebrating mass.  The priest, Ragheed Ganni, was my next-door neighbour in Rome for two years. You may remember hearing about it.  He had just celebrated Sunday mass, and was with three other sub-deacons and the wife of one of them.  Their car was ambushed, the woman was taken out of the car and the others were shot.  The three deacons had given their time to try and protect Fr. Ragheed, as they knew he was in danger.  When he was forced out of the car, one of the gunmen screamed at him:
 “I told you to close the church.  Why didn’t you do it?  Why are you still here?”  And he simply responded, How can I close the house of God?” 

Ragheed was just 34 and from Iraq himself.  He is now a martyr of the church.  He had studied to be a priest in Rome and spent several summers working in Ireland because it was too dangerous to go back to Iraq.  But eventually he decided that it was time for him to go back to his home country as the people needed him.  He knew that it would be extremely dangerous and to be honest I wasn’t that surprised when I heard this terrible news.  About a year before, he had sent me an email telling me that armed men had come into his house and brought him out at gunpoint and then blown up the church.  He sent me a photo of himself standing outside the church and it in flames.  And just two weeks before he was shot, on Pentecost Sunday, there had been another bomb attack on the church.

He also told me that over half of his parish had already left, because it was too dangerous.  Anyone who could afford it had gone, but the poorer people were still there.  And the thing that will stick with me the most is probably this: he said that without the Eucharist, the people have nothing.  That is why he was prepared to stay, because he believed that the Eucharist was everything, and the people needed this hope and so he was prepared to stay there and risk death.

Somehow it is when all our material comforts are taken away, that we suddenly realise the importance of having spiritual hope.  It is not as obvious to us because we are fairly comfortable and thankfully we can practice our faith freely.  But it is not so easy for many people in the world right now. However, often when people are suffering for their faith they are much more tuned in to their need for God, their need for the Eucharist.
Just before the war started in Iraq I asked Ragheed what were his fears for his country.  He told me that the problem wasn’t when the Americans moved in, but rather when they would leave again, because then there would be civil war and the Christians would be wiped out.  That is exactly what happened.

I am not telling you this story about Ragheed’s death to just paint a depressing picture of the terrible things going on in the world, but rather because it reminds me of the enormous treasure that God has given us in the Eucharist and the priesthood and what people will endure because of their hope in God’s promise of life after death.  That gives people great inner strength to go through difficulties.  We also need to hold onto that hope of the world to come.  Hopefully we won’t have to experience that kind of persecution, but even for the ordinary difficulties that we continually face, it makes all the difference if we have the inner strength and hope that our faith gives us.  What is that hope?  It is the hope that something wonderful awaits us in the world to come if we choose for God.  That helps us to be faithful, especially when things are difficult.  That is what the readings are about in today’s mass. 

In the first reading we hear about a family who are prepared to face torture and death rather than turn their back on their faith in God.  And the Gospel Jesus is reminding us that the life after this one is real and worth struggling to reach.  People are prepared to die for the mass and for their faith because it is the greatest thing that God has given us.  It is what makes sense of why we are here.

As it happens I was in Rome shortly after Ragheed’s death and I was there for a special mass that was celebrated in the Irish College.  It was celebrated by several Iraqi priests, mostly in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, which Ragheed also spoke at home.  It was very moving to see several other priests there from Iraq who could easily face the same fate as my friend Fr. Ragheed.

During the mass, the words that kept going through my head were the words of the consecration: ‘This is my body, which will be given up for you.’  Those words reminded me of Ragheed’s life.  He was prepared to sacrifice himself for his people so that they could have the Eucharist, the greatest treasure that God has given us.  In the same way the Lord Jesus sacrificed himself for us as well, so that we might have life.  May the Lord’s promises to us give us grace to be faithful and to keep going when things are difficult.
Ragheed Ganni, priest and martyr, pray for us.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

31st Sunday Yr C (Luke 19:1-10) Remembering the dead

There is a lady called Maria Simma (1915-2004) who became famous because the Holy Souls apparently used to appear to her and ask her for prayers for them.  She lived in Austria as a peasant for most of her life.  She tried religious life but was unable to continue because she was too weak physically.  She actually tried three different convents but had to leave each in turn.  She ended up doing simple work and living on her own.  She only received education to the age of 12, but her mother had great devotion to praying for the souls in Purgatory and she seems to have inherited this too. 

The first time a soul appeared to her she was 25 years old (1940) and for the following several years only two or three souls appeared to her over the course of a year.  But then from 1954 onward they continually appeared to her.  In reading about her I found it very interesting to learn what some of the souls said to her.  One case in particular is as follows.  She recalls how a young man appeared to her asking her to pray for him.  He told her the circumstances of his death.  He lived in mountain village somewhere in the Alps (I think).  He wasn’t a very religious man and in fact lived a pretty wild lifestyle.  One year there were a series of avalanches. Then one night while he was asleep there was another avalanche and he woke up to hear the screams of people nearby who were trapped.  He jumped up and rushed out to help them.  His mother tried to stop him screaming, ‘Don’t go out, you will be killed too!’  However, he went anyway and he was killed.  But he explained to Maria Simma that God in his mercy had allowed him to die at a time when he was being most giving, most self-less.  This action had redeemed so much of what he had done wrong in his life. 

That story has always stayed with me since I read it.  God in his mercy gives us the benefit of the doubt.  He goes out of his way to make allowances for us, even excuses for us, you might say.  because that is when all that we have believed in and struggled to be faithful to, will make sense.

When my Grandmother used to hear people using the expression, ‘rest in peace,’ she would sometimes say, ‘I don’t want to “rest in peace” I want to be alive and active!’  I think she had the right idea.  What God has created us for in the world to come is something unimaginably wonderful and that is why God goes to such lengths to make sure we can get there.  The greatest thing God has done for us after giving us the gift of life, is making sure that we can reach that happiness and that is only possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus.  God will do everything to make sure we reach that happiness, but God will not force us because of the free will He has given us, so we must be careful to make the right choices ourselves.

November is the month where we traditionally remember those who have died and it is good that we do.  Starting with the feast of All Saints on Nov 1st we celebrate all those who are in heaven; probably many of our family members who are now saints.  Anyone who is in heaven is a saint. Even though we officially recognise just a few of them, everyone there is a saint.  Then on Nov 2nd we have the feast of All Souls where we pray for all who have died.

Why do we need to pray for the dead?  Aren’t they all in heaven?  Hopefully most of them are, but if you think about yourself for a moment, if you died today, do you think that you would be ready to enter the presence of the all holy God straight away?  I doubt if I would.  Most of us probably need a little refining, or being purified before we are ready for that.  A good analogy is of someone waking up in the morning and being faced with the blinding light of the sun.  Initially even the bedroom light is too much and we have to slowly wait until our eyes adjust; the light of the sun would be absolutely unbearable at first.  The funny thing is that we want to see the sun in the morning because it is beautiful, but at the same time we are not able for it straight away.

Traditionally the Church teaches us about Purgatory, which is the last stage of getting ready to be in God’s presence when we die.  This is not a punishment, rather it is a purification to make us ready for the wonderful presence of God, which we will enjoy for all eternity.  So in fact it is a great gift from God and not something we should be afraid of.  The Church also teaches us that we can help those who are still at that stage of Purgatory by praying for them.  That is why we pray for the dead in every mass we offer throughout the whole year and we remember them especially during the month of November.

In Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Corinth, he says the following: ‘If our hope in Christ has been for this life only, we are of all people the most to be pitied’ (1 Cor 15:19).  In other words if we think that this life is what it’s all about, we have completely missed the point of our faith.  What God teaches us is that we are all the time preparing for the world to come.  This life is a kind of school or training ground, where we are free to love or not, to choose for God or not.  And the choices we make have consequences.  If we keep in mind that something wonderful awaits us, which is what we will experience sooner or later, that helps us not to get too immersed in the world.  We all get distracted and bogged down with the worries of this life, but we need to keep reminding ourselves of what our life is about, so that we don’t waste it. If we keep in mind the thought and hope of the world to come, where we will experience life in a way we can never experience it here, it helps us to keep the right focus.  Death is not something for us to be afraid of; rather it will be the beginning of something unimaginably wonderful.

I leave you with this thought: Why do those who have died not come back to tell us what it is like?  I’m sure it is because they know that it is not necessary for us to know.  The ‘not knowing’ is part of the struggle of faith.  For now we try to believe and trust in what the Lord has taught us: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.  There are many rooms in my Father’s house.  If there were not I would have told you’ (Jn 14:1).

Eternal rest grant to them O Lord and may perpetual light shine upon them.  May they enjoy the happiness that awaits us all.